Food is a telling thing. For a true venture into cultural anthropology, visit a local grocery store – preferably a mom-and-pop operation. I’ve shopped for groceries on three continents and in many states of the US. I always find interesting things to take home.
Checked luggage is a good idea. Consider buying condiments. It is amazing what people will do with cucumbers, stewed fruit, and overripe tomatoes. Or mustard seeds, vinegar, and oil. Pasta and other starch items can reveal the ethnic makeup of the community, whether it’s predominantly Indian, Chinese, Italian, or German.
If you’re traveling by car, make sure to have plenty of room in your vehicle. Local soda pop, wines, and beers can make great take-homes.
I was already a grocery store aficionado when I attended the Sewanee Writers Conference in July 2007. There I met “Marie,” a playwright from New York City who said she needed Tennessee souvenirs for her family.
“Try Piggly Wiggly,” I said.
She was dubious, but I talked her into accompanying me to the local grocery in search of authentic souvenirs. On the list: Junior Johnson country ham, biscuit mix, and grits.
“What’s the difference between quick and instant?” she said.
“Trust me. You want quick.”
Other picks included okra pickles, a box of Moon pies, barbecue sauce, pinto beans, canned collards (as a cool-weather crop, fresh collards aren’t available in the heat of summer), and mayhaw jelly.
“What’s a mayhaw?” she asked.
I had to admit I didn’t know exactly, but it sounded like something her New York family could use.
She was intrigued by Veg-All, the canned vegetable mixture we take for granted, and she found the name hilarious.
The “I’m Big on the Pig” t-shirts were de rigueur, I told her.
She bought three in different colors.
“How do you know all this stuff?” she asked.
I told her that I hadn’t lived in North Carolina 30 years for nothing.
Later, Marie emailed me that her family was enchanted with all of their gifts, and the t-shirts were a huge hit.
What I feared, though, was that the edibles might lead to a hankering so strong that the recipients might have to return for more. That is the danger using grocery stores as souvenir havens. Souvenir groceries you come to love can set you up for frustration when you can’t buy more of them back home. Scarcity does make foodstuffs more appealing: Just ask folks who export Krispy Kreme doughnuts or live Maine lobsters. It’s why as a college student in Missouri in the 1970s, any trip I made to Kansas meant filling orders for Coors beer that wasn’t yet sold east of Kansas.
Over the years I’ve dragged home birch beer from Pennsylvania, maple syrup from Vermont, Cape Cod oyster crackers, key lime pie filling from Florida, cornmeal mush and Amish noodles from Illinois, Utz potato chips and Tastykakes from Maryland – before they invaded North Carolina. Except for the birch beer and mush; they’ve stayed put as far as I know.
But I am disappointed when edible souvenirs from far-flung places appear in my local grocery store. It means a small company has been expanded, or more than likely bought out. The world has shrunk and become more watered down. Those particular souvenir foods can be crossed off my list, but I won’t stop looking for new ones.